727 – The Family (***)

Whatcha gonna do with that match, Michelle?  Image from Collider.com.

Whatcha gonna do with that match, Michelle? Image from Collider.com.

The Family, a dazzling, profane, hilarious mob film from Luc Besson, includes – I am not kidding – a great performance by Robert De Niro, an actor who, for the better part of a decade has made plenty of paycheck films. But whatever he was paid for this, it’s clear this was no cash grab. The writing – by Besson and Michael Caleo – is top notch, oozing vicious decadence from every pore, and the rest of the cast, including a terrifying turn from Michelle Pfeiffer, is up to the task. This is vintage De Niro in his kind of movie.

De Niro plays Fred Blake (not his real name), the patriarch of a high-ranking mob family who’s turned snitched for the Feds. Since his snitching, he’s had to move several times, often because he and his clan (wife “Maggie” and kids “Belle” and “Warren”) can’t help but revert to their old ways. Now they find themselves in Normandy, which is known for being a landing place for the U.S. military in WW II – and little else. Assimilation won’t be easy; it never has been.

Each family member runs into their own brand of trouble. Son Warren (John D’Leo) is bullied at school on the first day, so he wheels and deals to set up the bullies for a fall. Daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) deals her own justice to mean girls and overly friendly boys. Neither is to be trifled with. Wife Maggie, insulted in French at a grocery store, takes matters into her own hands. Yeah, revenge is not a foreign concept to this group.

Fred slips when he meets his next-door neighbor and mentions that he’s a writer, yeah, that’s the ticket, and he’s writing a book on the landing at Normandy. To be clear, Fred is not only not a writer, he’s not a historical scholar. This will make the cover tough, won’t it? But two variables change that equation: Fred’s discovery of an old typewriter in the house and a phone call from a local English professor, who subsequently invites the local American writer to a film-society screening so that he can offer his input from an intellectual standpoint. It might not surprise you that the scheduled film, Some Came Running, does not arrive; what might surprise you is the one that does, a perfect piece of self-awareness that is one of the highest moments in a film full of them.

But this is no simple fish-out-of-water movie. You know, of course, that ol’ Fred helped the Feds. Well, guess who’s looking for him and his family? Mob guys! So the mob’s hot on their trail, there are real-life obstacles like terrible jealous girls, school muscleheads, lying plumbers, cheating mayors, and corrupt water-plant presidents. This is the kind of movie where everything that’s not nailed down gets either blown up or used as a weapon.

De Niro is terrific, definitely, with work that at least rivals his role in The Silver Linings Playbook, but he’s not the only standout here. Michelle Pfeiffer’s NY/NJ accent sounds authentic – perhaps remembering her work in Scarface and Frankie and Johnny, both with Al Pacino – and she’s amazing, tough, and beautiful as the resiliant Maggie Blake. But the fun doesn’t stop with Pfeiffer – both D’Leo and Agron nail their roles gracefully and realistically. You’d want these kids on your team, is what I’m getting at. Like their pop, they don’t suffer fools gladly and are a heck of a lot smarter than they may appear.

Also on board as the agent in charge of the “Blake” family is the hound dog Tommy Lee Jones, looking and sounding like he was fresh off the set of The Fugitive. He growls, he complains, he threatens, he cajoles – all to keep Fred and family relatively clean, and to little avail. Hey, wiseguys are gonna do what wiseguys wanna do, capisce? Jones’ signature mopiness is a perfect fit for the part.

Rest assured that although there is plenty of gunplay – particularly at the end – it’s the comedy, the subtle injections of humor into an otherwise black-hearted plot – that really fill out the film. It helps that each of the leads – including Jones – has sound comic timing. Comedy properly deployed is much more effective than that fired from a Gatling gun of jokes.

The Family is, certainly the kind of movie that De Niro has appeared in several times, so much so that he could play the role of a mafioso in his sleep. But he doesn’t mail this one in at all. He’s charming and engaged and once again shows himself to be one of the very greatest actors of his generation.

The Family: ***

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